For over three decades, since 1981, the political discourse in Bangladesh has been the “Battle of 2 Begums”. Two-term prime minister Khaleda Zia whose official identity is that of a ‘begum’ fights the three-term current incumbent, Sheikh Hasina who, despite being a devout Muslim, identifies herself with things Bengali. This is crucial in a largely Muslim society that also prides in Bengali language and culture.
Their personal (they rarely talk to each other and never share joy or grief) and political rivalries born out of differing legacies that they have inherited and perpetuated overawe Bangladesh and will continue, at least till one of them is around.
The current mood is one of intense speculation: will Begum Zia, who blundered into boycotting the last parliamentary polls and went into a politically damaging hibernation, contest the elections due this year-end or early next year?
Viewed from New Delhi, chances are that she will. This may be her last chance at political comeback. At 73, she is known to have undergone a heart surgery and has suffered joint pain for long.
Worse, she lost her younger son Arafat, said to be her favourite. He had sought exile in Singapore to escape money-laundering charges back home. Politically worst for her is the self-exile of elder son Tariq who is also wanted in Bangladesh for graft and misuse of power when the mother was the premier (2001-2006). His return would result in instant imprisonment.
An apolitical army-wife pitchforked into politics by the 1981 assassination of her husband, President Ziaur Rahman, Zia has a daunting task ahead fighting an intensely political Hasina.
Zia pursued politics, and legacy of her husband, whom India suspected of having benefitted, if not involved in, the 1975 assassination of the country’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. To carve out a separate identity free of India/West Bengal, the Zias have been adversarial towards India, leaned towards Pakistan from which Bangladesh separated and the Islamic world outside.
At home, the Islamist parties have been their natural allies. Their party, named Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has sought to define ‘nationalism’ as different from rival Awami League.
Indeed, while the husband rehabilitated Sheikh Mujib’s killers and ended the ban on the Muslim League that had sided with Pakistani rulers, the wife aligned with that party, having League’s ministers in her government during 2001-2006. She has engaged in anti-India tirade, whether in power or out of it. Rival Hasina and her party are painted as “Indian agents.”
By a natural political corollary, she subtly leans towards Pakistan whose establishment has always wanted to undo the humiliation it suffered in 1971, of losing Bangladesh and losing militarily to India.
Under Khaleda, Islamist parties and militant bodies spread terror at the turn of this century, targeting religious minorities and the liberals. Denying their presence at for long, Zia finally acted when threatened with sanctions by the US and criticized by the world community. There were at least three recorded attempts on Hasina’s life.
As opposition parties do, the BNP is showing sudden signs of revival. This month, Zia dispatched three former lawmakers to India. The exploratory visit explains the importance of the larger neighbor, but such visits to the US and Britain cannot be ruled out.
Former Commerce Minister Amir Khosru addressed Indian think tanks and gave media interviews to emphasize that India was “mistaken” in thinking that Begum Zia and the BNP are anti-India. Their effort is to keep India out of the polls discourse and build a scenario of lasting relationship, particularly the economic ties (on which Bangladesh heavily depends and gains) whatever the election’s outcome.
How India looks at Zia and her past record to judge the future remains uncertain. In the past, India has been subtly accused, particularly by the Western powers who are vary of India’s domination in South Asia, of siding with Hasina and prompting her to push on with the 2013 elections. When Zia boycotted them, Hasina received a walk-over and five more years in power.
This discourse leads with Zia, and not Hasina, for three reasons. Firstly, the Islamist forces have gained ground in Bangladesh impacting India’s internal security in the east and north-east. This is despite Hasina emasculating Zia’s main ally, the Bangladesh Muslim League, trying and imprisoning its top leadership and hanging some of them, for targeting unarmed civilians and religious minorities while siding with the Pakistani regime during the 1971 freedom movement.
The nationalist sentiment remains strong 47 years after freedom, but pro-Pakistan sentiment, and the feeling of being ‘surrounded’ by India, do influence the powerful middle class’ mind. They are also influenced by Islamist resurgence that promotes extremism in some parts of the world and a general rightwing lurch across it.
Targeting of liberals has been serious under Hasina. Her response has been inadequate – she is caught between a pious Muslim identity needed to govern and the need to defend and protect democratic freedom. She could fall between the two stools.
Secondly, in power for over nine years, Hasina faces serious anti-incumbency challenge from a volatile Bangali populace that does not easily re-elect a party and a government. Many socio-economic indicators have certainly improved in last nine years and the economy is performing better than, say, Pakistan or Nepal. But it is a mixed bag of achievements.
Thirdly, the India factor, since Hasina, by her legacy and record, is perceived as pro-India. She has to ‘gain’ from India without ‘surrender’. Like Zia’s, this is also a daunting task.
The extent to which India can and has helped is open to serious doubt and debate. Hasina closed the camps of militants from the Indian northeast, helping the region’s internal security. She naturally expects a quid pro quo. Even allowing for expectation of a smaller neighbor from the bigger one, she has not felt compensated enough.
The Land Border Agreement settled the population/territorial dispute that was legacy of the 1947 Partition. The maritime boundary has also helped. India has not pursued river projects in the northeast to avoid raising alarming sentiments in Bangladesh.
But water sharing agreement on Teesta river remains crucial to India-Bangladesh ties, no matter who rules in Dhaka. West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee has pursued narrow politics to thwart it, first during the UPA rule and then with NDA. PM Narendra Modi, who has won some support in Dhaka, has failed to convince Kolkata. Looking at Mamata’s political posturing against Delhi and her fear of the BJP, any pact on Teesta seems impossible.
When Teesta pact has not materialized, it is hardly surprising that Bangladesh continues to allow India access through its territory to the Indian northeast. In denying Teesta waters, India is losing much more.
Imagine a situation if and when Zia returns to power. She could well take Teesta, like she did Farakka issue, to the United Nations General Assembly.
Imagine the prospect of Zia, or any future government in Dhaka, approaching the upper riparian China to pressure India to release more water on the Ganga and less water from Brahmaputra. Dhaka is already on the Belt and Roads Inititiative (BRI) bandwagon and China is already Bangladesh’s largest trading partner and arms supplier.
Whatever the political compulsions of Delhi and/or Kolkata, the larger neighbour has failed the smaller one. India can compensate on the trade front. But that would be grossly inadequate.
At a time when even tiny Maldives and Seychelles thumb the nose at India, in a region where Chinese Dragon is spreading its presence, New Delhi should work really hard to keep the only neighbor with which it has a genuinely positive relationship.
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